New York Music Daily

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Powerful Singer Kelsey Park’s New Song Cycle Tackles a Heartbreaking, Rarely Discussed Issue

Pianist Lana Norris put mezzo-soprano Kelsey Park in touch with composer Denise Mei Yan Hofmann, and the result was a meticulously poignant, painterly suite performed by all three along with clarinetist Artemis Cheung yesterday on the Upper West Side. It was probably the first public performance ever for any cycle of art-songs on the subject of battling infertility.

Park had written a series of poems as a way of dealing with the issue herself. To share them with Norris, her friend, was brave to begin with. Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine any more soul-baring performance by any singer in front of an audience in this city in recent memory. And the material was worthy of the musicians’ emotional attunement to the music.

Beyond the ever-present, looming backdrop, the genius of Hofmann’s score to those poems was the choice of instrumentation. Pairing the rich, resonant lows of Park’s voice with close harmonies from the clarinet – whose range is almost exactly the same – made for a relentless unease. At times, Cheung’s airy, crystalline lines would either follow or foreshadow Park’s path as the music rose ineluctably from rainy-day plaintiveness to a short series of spine-tingling arioso crescendos.

As with the material, the program didn’t follow any any easily stereotyped format. Norris opened with a tensely spare Hofmann solo piano piece spiced with distant gospel allusions and vividly mournful belltone accents. Hofmann then played acoustic guitar through a Fender amp, maxing out the reverb, joining Park and Cheung for a trio of spacious, uneasily crescendoing, circling songs, ending with a delicate, somewhat wounded waltz.

Hofmann then had the trio of Park, Norris and Cheung play short excerpts from the suite before tackling the whole thing. Was Park going to be able to make it through the relentless angst of one of its most dramatic moments, using all of her impressive upper register with the phrase “Why me?” over and over again? Much as she visibly teared up, the power in her voice wouldn’t give in to defeat. Ultimately, both Park’s lyrics and Hofmann’s music were resolute in the face of challenges to faith and hope, pushing despair away and finally finding calm and sense of renewed optimism.

Water imagery, both musical and lyrical, was a central theme early on. Cheung shifted calmly from long, airy tones to brief, moody phrases in her midrange and lower: there were points at which she could have been playing a bass clarinet. Likewise, Norris walked a steady line between Hoffmann’s deft blend of terse neoromanticism and postminimalist acidity while Park held steady, only to rise to the rafters in three explosive peaks, the first to open the suite.

“Is motherhood selfish?” Park asked herself during a brief mid-concert Q&A. No, she’d decided. She didn’t address the idea head-on, but her concept of motherhood embraces children without Instagram status-grubbing or turning them into yuppie bling. 

While the struggle to beat physical challenges to become a mother is seldom publicly discussed, it’s very common. And it’s hardly an exclusively female problem. Since the first atom bomb tests over seventy years ago, mens’ potency in terms of ability to conceive has diminished by almost fifty percent on a global level: toxic radionuclides have had a devastating effect. While she didn’t get into any kind of trouble on the male side of the equation, Park deserves enormous credit for having the courage to tackle an issue which, even while it impacts literally millions of people worldwide, is still seldom discussed in public, let alone onstage.

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A Spellbinding Downtown Show By Two of the Greatest Players in Middle Eastern Music

Time stood still last night in the financial district at the duo performance by Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor and Turkish baglama lute player Erdal Erzincan. They opened with a whisper, Kalhor bowing a barely audible mist until Erzincan responded with a single spare, plaintive, minor-key phrase. After the better part of two hours onstage, they ended cold with a single bracing cadenza. In between, they channeled mystery, and occasional horror, a little irresistible humor and some snark – and pretty much every other emotion in between.

Kalhor is often acknowledged as this era’s greatest Iranian musician, and might also be the most riveting composer of the late 20th and early 21st century as well. He is equally skilled as an improviser, as is Erzincan. In the crowd last night, one of the great impresarios of Turkish music called hin the world’s most innovative baglama player.

Slowly and methodically, Erzincan drew Kalhor from his deep-sky whispers into a brooding exchange of simple, warily allusive phrases. Soon after, Kalhor set the stage for the rest of the evening with a plaintive descending riff in the whole-tone scale. From there the show was a roller-coaster ride of several variations on that theme – four in particular stood out, although variations in Middle Eastern music can be pretty much infinite.

As was the epic scope of the concert. It was impossible not to get completely lost in the music. On one hand, much of it was Middle Eastern Twin Peaks themes, developing increasingly ominous melodies based loosely on the two musicians’ landmark 2006 album, The Wind. This was less a full-force gale – or uneasy breeze – than a series of storms punctuated by portents of more to come.

It’s impossible to remember Kalhor playing with more sheer ferocity than he did last night. His percussive attack seemed to be a new development: often he’d pluck out a galloping beat on his fingerboard, using his little finger on the bulb at the base of his fiddle for a striking, boomy impact, enhanced by the immense amount of reverb that both instruments benefited immensely from. His seemingly endless waves of practically supersonic sixteenth notes as the music reached full altitude toward the end of the show were literally breathtaking,  in terms of both raw speed and clenched-teeth emotional wallop. And he didn’t even introduce his signature echo effects – where he bows the same note and then gradually backs off – until at least the halfway point.

Erzincan’s technique and melody were just as riveting. His rippling, pointillistic volleys of chromatics underneath Kalhor’s aching, astringent washes seemed absolutely effortless. Likewise, there were several interludes where Erzincan put two hands on the fretboard and fired off long spirals of tapping that put just about any heavy metal guitarist to shame. For whatever reason, after Kalhor had introduced that first troubled central riff, it  was Erzincan who ushered in each of the others.

Perhaps because music from Iran and Turkey blends the microtones of classical Arabic maqam music with western tonalities, there were points where razors-edge Middle Eastern chromatics were front and center, and others – particularly during the lulls – where the ambience was closer to western classical, or even horror film music. There were also a couple of points where Kalhor threw a couple of absolutely buffoonish swipes at Erzincan, who passed them right back without missing a beat – was this to gauge how much people were paying attention? For what it’s worth, nobody laughed out loud,

The long upward sprint at about the ninety minute mark turned out to be just clever foreshadowing; the two suddenly backed away for a return to the introductory whispers before raising the energy toward redline again. And then suddenly the show was over. At that point, it was impossible to recall anything more than this, considering how much of a dream state the crowd had been drawn into. A cellist in the audience, sister to one of the great innovators in Punjabi and blues music, mused about what a privilege it had been to witness this. Her friend, one of New York’s foremost concert presenters, revealed that she’d spent the whole show with her eyes closed, letting the duo deliver a surrealist film for the ears.

This was the final concert of the year at Pace University’s Schimmel Center, but is typical of the programming here. A big shout to Isabel Sofer of Live Sounds, who booked this concert and has been one of the world’s foremost advocates for Kalhor and many similar artists from around the world since the 1990s.

Eclectic, Purposeful Trombonist Plays a Subterranean Album Release Show this Wednesday

You want instant cred? Get recruited by Anat Cohen to play in her Tentet. That’s the deal with trombonist Nick Finzer, who’s playing the album release for his new one, No Arrival this Wednesday, May 23 at 8 PM at Subculture, 45 Bleecker just east of Lafayette, downstairs from the Culture Project Theatre. Advance tix, available at the box office, are $20.

Most of the new record – streaming at Posi-Tone Records – is originals. To Finzer’s credit, this isn’t a full-throttle situation: he mixes up tempos and styles, and for a guy with his vaunted technique (check his youtube masterclass channel), he doesn’t waste notes. On the opening number, Rinse And Repeat, Finzer’s sextet work an insistent, understated cha-cha groove, Alex Wintz’s guitar and Victor Gould’s piano throwing answers to the bandleader’s ongoing quest of a solo, saxophonist Lucas Pino following, completely tongue-in-cheek, Jon Irabagon style.

The blithe New Orleans stroll that introduces Never Enough offers no hint of the welcome haphazard direction it’s going to go in…or Pino’s nifty bass clarinet solo. Always fun to take chances, right?

Likewise, the first of the covers, Leonard Bernstein’s Maria theme from West Side Story, understates the latin flavor, dancing along on the pulse of Dave Baron’s bass and Jimmy Macbride’s drums, the bandleader’s balmy solo front and center. They revert to similarly subtle latin syncopations a little later with George Gershwin’s Soon.

Tomorrow Next Year – Finzer’s “we’re gonna get through this somehow” response to the fateful 2016 Presidential election – is a bustling, vampy urban tableau, Finzer and Pino having fun with a famous Albert King riff. The band build momentum out of a pensive, searching tone poem of sorts in the album’s title track – the momentary pairing of Macbride’s cymbal bells and Wintz’s belltone chords is a cool touch.

Chugging sixteenth-note volleys from Finzer and Pino, and a tightly clustering Gould solo propel Pyramid, from Duke Ellington’s Ellington Far East Suite, while expansive solos from Finzer and Wintz elevate Only This, Only Now from existential gloom. The album closes with two covers: a mighty, churning reinvention of Prince’s The Greatest Romance Ever Sold, and Strayhorn’s A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing, a showcase for Finzer’s wry, Wycliffe-esque finesse with a mute. It’s an impressive effort from a highly sought-after player whose best days are probably still ahead of him.

Lush, Kinetic, Imaginatively Purist New Big Band Jazz From Dan Pugach’s Nonet Plus One

How do you get the most bang for your buck, to make a handful of musicians sound like a whole orchestra? Composers and arrangers have been using every trick in the book to do that since the Middle Ages. One guy who’s particularly good at it is drummer/bandleader Dan Pugach, whose retro style harks back to the 60s and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band. Over the past couple of years, Pugach’s Nonet Plus One have refined that concept, gigging all over New York. They’re playing the album release show for their debut album tonight, May 18 at 10 PM at their usual hang, 55 Bar.

The opening track, Brooklyn Blues, is definitely bluesy, but with an irrepressible New Orleans flair. Pugach likes short solos to keep things tight and purposeful: tenor saxophonist Jeremy Powell and trombonist Mike Fahie get gritty and lowdown while Jorn Swart’s piano bubbles up occasionally amid lushly brassy flares from the rest of the group.

Coming Here opens with a comfortable, late-night sweep anchored by Carmen Staaf’s glimmering piano, punctuated by gusts from throughout the band, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen soaring triumphantly and lyrically, Powell more pensive against Staaf’s hypnotic, emphatic attack. The tightly chattering outro, held down by bassist Tamir Shmerling, baritone saxophonist Andrew Gutauskas and bass trombonist Jen Hinkle, is a tasty surprise.

You wouldn’t think a big band version of the Dolly Parton classic Jolene would work, but this group’s not-so-secret weapon, singer Nicole Zuraitis, gives it a Laura Nyro-like intensity as the group punch in and out throughout Pugach’s darkly latin-tinged arrangement. Staaf’s spiraling, serioso chromatics are spot on, Jensen taking that intensity to redline.

Andrew Gould’s optimistic alto sax and David Smith’s catchy, fluttering trumpet solo take centerstage in Zelda, a slow, swaying ballad. Individual and group voices burst in and out of Belo’s Bellow over Pugach’s samba-funk groove, bolstered by Bernardo Aguilar’s pandeiro. Then they reinvent Chick Corea’s Crystal Silence as blustery, arioso tropicalia, Zuraitis’ dramatic vocal flights and Gould’s bluesy alto over Swart’s terse, brooding piano and Pugach’s lush chart and cymbals.

Likewise, Pugach’s piano-based arrangement of Quincy Jones’ Love Dance gives it a welcome organic feel. Zuraitis’ Our Blues gets a powerhouse arrangement to match her wry hokum-inspired lyrics and defiant delivery: “You’re much more clever when you shut your mouth,” she advises. Smith’s sudden crescendo, using Swart’s piano as a launching pad early during the subtle syncopations of Discourse This might be the album’s high point. Keeping a large ensemble together is an awful lot of work, but it’s understandable why a cast of musicians of this caliber would relish playing Pugach’s inventively purist charts.

A Relentlessly Savage New Horror Noiserock Album and a Williamsburg Show From Guitar Shredder Reg Bloor

Guitarist Reg Bloor – wife of the late, great Glenn Branca – writes bloodcurdling industrial metal instrumentals with dead-on accurate titles like Theme From an Imaginary Slasher. Don’t listen to her deliciously assaultive, aptly titled new solo album Sensory Irritation Chamber if you have a headache. On the other hand, if you need a shot of adrenaline, you have a sense of humor, and you can handle her nails-down-the-blackboard attack, this is your jam.

Although her husband’s influence is obvious- Bloor played in his noisily enveloping guitar orchestra for seventeen years – her compositions are a lot more succinct. She runs her Gibson Les Paul through a dense wall of freezing-rain reverb. Tritones – the so-called devil’s chord – are her thing: she’s got more of them on the new album than most artists use in a lifetime. The album isn’t officially out yet and consequently not up at her music page. She’s playing the release show tomorrow night, May 18 at 11 PM at Muchmore’s; cover is $10. Shrieky, pounding but surprisingly catchy no wavers Radio Shock open the night at 9, followed by the grimly theatrical Samantha Riott; downtown vets God Is My Co-Pilot headline.

Sarcasm and cynicism reach redline immediately in the new album’s deceptively catchy opening anthem, Hilarity Ensues. Bloor’s inventive use of octave and harmony pedals give this quasi-fanfare an epic, orchestral quality that persists throughout the next nine tracks.

Rhythmic, loopy Hitchockian shrieks kick off the title cut, then Bloor fires off a sardonically frantic panic theme: amid all the hysterics, there’s a very patient serial killer at work here. From there she segues into Projectile Bleeding – how’s that for evocative? – adding a coldly loopy, mechanically waltzing rhythm to the incessant tritones. Then her venomously precise tremolo-picking and sardonic chromatics get up in your face in the relentless Present Dystopia.

(You’ll Feel) A Little Pinch veers more toward Branca-esque white-noise orchestration, while the epic, slowly sirening 122 Zeros (And Then a 1) howls with feedback and the clatter of a blown-out speaker before Bloor kicks into a rhythmic drive, throwing up a cloud of toxic dust as she rides the shoulder.

Desiccated Survivor – which could be you, needing a drink after one of her shows – is a series of increasingly desperate variations on a staggered, loopy riff. Heads on Pikes is more hardcore – if you can imagine that. Raison d’Eath is a twisted study in wave motion, while Molotov Cocktail, a rehearsal for a suicide jumper, speaks for itself – and for the rest of the album. The final cut is the writhing, tongue-in-cheek The Wrath of That.

This isn’t for everybody, but as noise goes, it’s unbeatable. Just don’t play this too loud in your headphones – seriously. You could hurt yourself.

Popular Bassist Jim Whitney Steps Out with Two Bands and a New Album

Jim Whitney is one of the most in-demand bassists in both jazz and klezmer music – he’s Andy Statman’s righthand man on the low strings. Since he has so many sideman gigs, he doesn’t get a lot of chances to play his own material. Which is too bad, because he should be better known for his compositions than he is. It was good to see him leading an augmented quartet (there were special guests) through his sometimes enigmatic, often subtly witty originals at his first show of the year back in January at Barbes. He’s also got an album release show tonight, May 16 at 7 PM at 55 Bar, leading the quartet from his forthcoming release, Dodecahedron: Eric Halvorson on drums, Nate Radley on guitar and Bennett Paster on keyboards. Then he’s back at Barbes on May 22, also at 7 PM, with the core of that January band: guitarist Sean Moran, drummer Diego Voglino and flutist Michel Gentile.

The title of the new album – meaning a twelve-sided geometric figure – refers to the number of tunes on the album as well as Whitney’s frequent use of the twelve-tone system. As you might expect from a bassist, he introduces the opening track, Low Voltage, with an spaciously snappy, emphatic solo; Paster’s joke before Radley’s regal entrance is obvious but irresistible.

Kinsman Ridge maintains that darkly majestic atmosphere, Paster’s piano lightening as Halvorson develops a funky slink, Radley’s gravitas contrasting with the pianist as he shifts to twinkly Rhodes. The disorienting stagger of Rudy Blue matches Whitney’s refusenik changes, resisting resolution as Radley lingers and bends, menacingly, echoed from a distance by Whitney’s lurching solo.

Nap Time – a brave title for a jazz number, huh? – has 70s Morricone crime-jazz echoes and a sardonically spring-loaded groove, Radley’s incisions and Paster’s bubbles bobbing up over the bandleader’s lowdown slink. A gentle sense of wonder pervades Solar Shower’s echoey ambience, Whitney bowing a coyly familiar tune, the band going out in a big starry cascade.

Are You Kidding Me?! is aptly jagged and perplexed, its funky syncopation eventually coalescing around a catchy, time-warping reggae bass riff as Halvorson stirs up the dust. The even funkier Green Machine has gritty, catchy riffage from Radley, Whitney bowing wry gospel-blues

Feel The Heat, 2000 Feet is a diptych, an uneasily amorphous bass/guitar intro giving way to a slow rainy-day tableau. The band get funky again with Blockheads, Whitney’s gruff solo setting the stage for Radley to take it in a more celebratory direction

After Kodiak Zodiac, a Radley vehicle, Whitney nicks a famous Henry Mancini number for Cat Scat Blues, which they take far beyond any cartoon comparisons. The album comes full circle with Whitney getting playful by himself, with Midnight Tea.

A Gorgeously Haunting New Album and a Queens Residency from Lyrical Trombonist John Yao

Trombonist John Yao thinks big. His music is incredibly catchy, often cinematic, with epic sweep and abundant humor, whether he’s leading his 17-Piece Instrument big band or his quintet. But his latest quintet album, Presence – streaming at Bandcamp – is a radical departure. A distantly haunting, persistent sense of loss pervades the compositions. The central theme seems to be how to maintain a sense of continuity when everything goes horribly awry, in the wake of losing a good friend. It’s one of the half-dozen best jazz releases of 2018 so far.

On one hand, this is a new direction for the typically extroverted Yao. On the other, the frequent latin grooves here are familiar territory, considering his longtime association with Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. Yao has a monthly residency at Terraza 7 in Queens, where he’s playing tonight, May 16 at 9 PM with a slightly different lineup than usual: Billy Drewes on saxes, Jon Irabagon on tenor, Peter Brendler on bass and Jeremy Noller on drums. Cover is $10.

The album opens with Tight Rope, an uneasy psychedelic latin funk number, Randy Ingram’s lingering Rhodes holding the center as Iragabon’s soprano sax methodically and enigmatically leaps around, the bandleader introducing an unexpected calm. It wouldn’t be out of place in the early 70s Eddie Palmieri songbook.

The title track is more contemplative, drummer Shawn Baltazor working subtle permutations on a simple clave, around the kit, Ingram and Yao finding closure with concise solos. Baltazor ushers in the third number, the broodingly starry ballad M. Howard with muted polyrhythms beneath Yao’s sober foghorn riffs and Ingram’s moody piano, Brendler holding close to the center, up to a pensively spacious solo. The horn harmonies rising behind Ingram’s angst-fueled modal piano solo are one of the album’s high points.

Over the Line has a funky sway and more of the gorgeously muted melodicism that pervades the record, Yao making his way through the album’s most enigmatic yet haunting solo, then hands off to Irabagon’s flickering ghost of a sopranino sax solo as Ingram glimmers eerily in the upper registers. Baltazor’s rise from sepulchral to resigned and energetic caps off one of Yao’s best songs. 

The tumbling, altered New Orleans-isms and chattering individual voices of the free interlude Fuzzy Logic are suspiciously joyous. The shadowy, blues-tinged modalities of Nightfall make a stark contrast, Yao reaching down into the well to pull up some sustenance over a nimble, crescendoing, syncopated drive.

He opens 1247 Chestnut, a tone poem of sorts, with a goodnaturedly terse theme over muted, rubato tom-toms, Irabagon’s soprano further lightening the mood, Ingram branching outward with rustling neoromanticisms. The album’s final number is the aptly titled Bouncy’s Bounce, which has a triumphant Louis Armstrong-ish swing, a celebration of getting back in the groove to stay.

Two of the World’s Greatest Middle Eastern Musicians Revisit a Legendary Collaboration at Pace University This Saturday Night

Kayhan Kalhor is arguably the world’s greatest player of the kamancheh, the rustically overtone-drenched Iranian standup fiddle. He also might be the world’s foremost composer. His music is harrowing, windswept, mystical and majestic, often all of those qualities at once. Considering his Kurdish heritage, it’s no surprise that a powerful political streak runs through his work, most notably on his shattering 2008 Silent City suite, whose epic centerpiece commemorates Saddam Hussein’s poison gas attack on the Kurdish city of Hallabjah,

Unsurprisingly, Kalhor – a founding member of the Silk Road Ensemble – is constantly sought after as a collaborator. Back in the mid-zeros, he made a characteristically magical, serpentine album, The Wind, with Turkish baglama lute player Erdal Erzincan (streaming at Spotify). In a serendipitous stroke of fate, the two are touring this month, with a stop this Saturday night, May 19 at 7 PM at the Schimmel auditorium at Pace University at 3 Spruce St. in the financial district. Tix are $30 and still available as of today; the closest train is the 6 or the J to Brooklyn Bridge.

Obviously, with two of the world’s great improvisers onstage, there’s no telling where they’ll go, or to what degree they’ll replicate any of their previous performances together. Interestingly, back in the winter of 2013 at the Asia Society, Kalhor and santoorist Ali Bahrami Fard closely followed the trajectory if not the exact changes of their unforgettable duo album, I Will Not Stand Alone.

 At times, this album seems like an endless taqsim, a Sisyphean Middle Eastern journey up the mountainside which rather than tumbling down will slide back gracefully from an electrifying thicket of notes into into spare, plaintive resonance. In the same vein as American jazz, music from this part of the world, this included, relies on the western scale but with all sorts of blue notes, in lieu of the microtonal scales of, say, the Egyptian maqam tradition.

Erzincan flutters elegantly through a pensive minor mode to open the collaboration. Kalhor joins in with eerily microtonal melismas, then sets his sights on the clouds – or other galaxies, as he stabs further and further into the great beyond. Erzincan subtly moves toward the forefront with variations on a catchy riff with a surreal resemblance to an Appalachian theme.

Throughout the album, spare plucking interchanges with long, desolate kamancheh phrases and angst-fueled, quavery interludes. Interestingly, it’s not Erzincan but Kalhor who first introduces two plaintive classical Turkish themes, although Erzincan welcomes them with a spiky abandon. Angst rises as the two grow more insistent and then hypnotic together. A lively pizzicato duel grows into a bouncy, uneasy circle dance, then the two return more slashingly to starkly driving chromatics. There is no western jamband who can match their intensity. Find out for yourself Saturday night. 

Todd Marcus Releases a Vivid, Bittersweet, Fearlessly Relevant Celebration of Freddie Gray-Era Baltimore

Todd Marcus’ hard-hitting new suite On These Streets: A Baltimore Story – streaming at Bandcamp, more or less – was released this past April 27 to commemorate the anniversary of the killing of Freddie Gray. Gray was thrown in a Baltimore police van just a few blocks from Marcus’ dayjob at the nonprofit Intersection of Change, where he works as a community organizer. Over the past two years, the world’s only bass clarinetist big band leader found himself at ground zero, immersed in the furor over the killing. This quintet recording is a sometimes grim, bittersweet reflection on the events that brought Baltimore to its knees in April of 2015, and afterward.

And it’s as relevant as any protest jazz from the Civil Rights era, right up there with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Although Marcus’ music is profoundly lyrical, spoken-word passages by community members provide additional context in between a handful of the album’s individual tracks. It’s not only one of the year’s best jazz records –  it’s one of the most potently catchy albums of 2018 in any style of music.

Marcus’ heritage is Egyptian, so it’s no surprise that his music often draws as much on the Middle East as it does on African-American traditions. Marcus’ long, darkly magisterial solo in the album’s opening cut, On the Corner, finally brightens as a latin noir groove picks up, George Colligan’s piano spiraling through Marcus’ chromatics.

A local pastor introduces Marcus’ hometown shout-out An Intersection of Change, underscoring community efforts to combat crushing poverty and a persistent scourge of heavy drugs by reclaiming real estate, creating arts programs and providing rehab for addicts  – in other words, everything a reasonable government should be doing with taxpayer money. The song itself begins as a brightly propulsive, bustling shuffle, Warren Wolf’s vibraphone and Colligan’s piano rippling over drummer Eric Kennedy’s restless rustle until an ominous march foreshadows what’s to come.

Ground Zero (At Penn and North) is a real Shostakovian showstopper, drenched in sarcasm: a big splash for an intro, more of that march theme, a wickedly hard-charging Marcus solo contrasting with Paul Bollenback’s guitar, endless unison head-bobbing and then frantic scampering from Colligan up to a hard charge out. A Baltimore city councilman comments bitterly that “This is bigger than Freddie Gray, this is about social economics…lack of opportunities…this isn’t about West Baltimore, this could occur anywhere.”

Marcus’ brooding, spare low-register solos and Davis’ incisive drive propel Fear of the Known, centered by Kris Funn’s emphatic bass. Bollenback flares acidcally, then hands off to the bandleader’s biting Arabic chromatics.

PTSD in the Hood brings back the brooding clave of the album’s opening cut but more insistently – bad memories come back to haunt you with a vengeance. This time Marcus is both more somber and more frantic, and the march is more of a sotto-voce strut.

Fueled by Wolf’s carillon-like cascades and the rhythm section’s frenetic swing, Pennsylvania Avenue Hustle is Marcus’ salute to Baltimore’s former jazz mecca Pennsylvania Avenue, at one time a counterpart to New York’s 52nd St. and New Orleans’ Bourbon District.

The carefree wee-hour tableau It Still Gets Still is Marcus’ Harlem Nocturne, if a lot more expansive, lit up by Wolf’s twinkling solo: troubled as inner cities may be, all hope is not lost there. Marcus bookends Colligan and Wolf’s comfortable late-night cascades in Covered in Snow with a somberly anthemic theme 

The album closes with NJ ’88 (Ode to the 80s), a steady, catchy, workmanlike salute to Marcus’ New Jersey upbringing, with a dancing bass solo at the center: obviously he had cooler parents than most. Talk to somebody who spent time there as a kid. Most of them couldn’t wait to escape to the East Village…which they’d be priced out  of less than a decade later. 

Lucky Baltimoreans can catch Marcus leading a quartet at a rare, free daytime show on May 20 at 3:30 PM at Second Presbyterian Church at 4200 St. Paul St.

The Bang on a Can Marathon 2018 – A Marathon Report

“I know so many of you have followed our nomadic trail to so many locations,” composer Julia Wolfe demurred, introducing today’s 31st anniversary of the Bang on a Can Marathon at NYU’s Skirball Auditorium. 

“Great to be in a space where we can all listen,” mused her fellow composer and husband Michael Gordon, possibly alluding to less sonically welcoming venues the annual New York avant garde music summit has occupied.

This year’s program was the most compact and New York-centric in a long time, and considering the venue, it’s no surprise that NYU alums mentored by the Bang on a Can composers featured prominently on the bill. Terry Riley’s influence circulated vastly throughout much of the early part of the show; the ageless lion of indie classical took a turn on vocals as the concert wound up.

“We have a duty to go up to the people who come in afterward and brag,” grinned Bang on a Can’s David Lang, referring to the afternoon’s first piece, Galina Ustvolskaya’s relatively brief Symphony No. 2. The NYU Contemporary Ensemble – with woodwinds, brass and percussion – negotiated it calmly but forcefully. David Friend’s steady hamfisted piano thumps ushered in and then peppered steadily rhythmic, massed close harmonies from the rest of the group, Vocalist Robert Osborne implored a grand total of three Russian words – God, truth and eternity – over and over in between pulses as the music veered between the macabre and the simply uneasy. The ensemble really nailed the surprise ending – gently.

Michael Gordon’s Sonatra, the composer explained, is the only solo piano piece in his repertoire, quite a surprise considering that he’s a strong pianist and the best musician among the Bang on a Can hydra. “Somehow Vicky Chow has learned how to play it,” he deadpanned. She made Gordon’s vast, subtly contrasting, rigorously crosshanded Terry Riley-like expanses of steady eighth notes seem easy, engaging every single one of the piano’s eighty-eight keys.

Murky faux-boogie woogie lefthand paired against relentlessly twinkling righthand riffage; that Chow could incorporate Gordon’s relentlessly tongue-in-cheek glissandos with as much aplomb as she did reaffirms her mighty chops as one of the world’s foremost avant garde musicians.

Chamber orchestra Contemporaneous tackled a carbonated, caffeinated, endlessly circling fifteen-minute slice of cellist Dylan Mattingly’s similarly daunting, epically ecstatic six-hour opera Stranger Love. The Bang on a Can All-Stars – as amazingly mutable as ever – made the first of their many appearances with Gabriella Smith’s Panitao, evoking the swoops and high swipes of whale song amid increasingly animated, rippling, sirening ambience. Then they pounced their way through the staggered math steps of Brendon Randall-Myers’ Changes, Stops, and Swells (For B).

A sextet subset of Contemporaneous returned for Fjóla Evans’s turbulent tone poem Eroding, an Icelandic river tableau. With its sharp contrasts – bass clarinet, cello and piano gnashing and swirling amid the flickers from violin, flute and vibraphone – and disarming trick ending, it was the first real stunner among the new material on the bill.

Purple Ensemble – a string trio augmented with vibes, viola and vocals – played three Yiddish songs from Alex Weiser’s cycle And All the Days Were Purple. Singer Eliza Bagg channeled joy shadowed by angst and longing, Lee Dionne’s piano beginning low and enigmatic and then slithering in a far more Lynchian direction over the strings.    

The All-Stars’ were bolstered by Contemporaneous’ strings and percussion for a trio of  commissions. Jeffrey Brooks was first represented by After the Treewatcher,  based on a trancey earlier work which was the composer recalled being vociferously booed when Gordon premiered it back in the early 80s. Guitarist Taylor Levine’s warily oscillating lines undulated amongst emphatic strings and rustling, peek-a-boo suspense-film percussion riffs, building a Riley-esque web of sound that was as gorgeously hypnotic as it was hard-hitting.

A second new work, Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, featured additional reeds and brass along with pointillistic twin electric pianos. A bustlingly circular, Bollywood-inflected theme gave way to austere, lingering ambience and then a wryly gritty Beatles guitar knockoff.

The Flux Quartet played their first violinist Tom Chiu’s Retrocon, a meteorologically-inspired, spiraling, Philip Glass-ine series of rising and falling microtonal cell figures. Violinist Mazz Swift and keyboardist Therese Workman juxtaposed electroacoustic string metal, new wave pop, a classic spiritual and faux-EDM in their mini-suite Revolution:House.

The big hybrid ensemble reconfigured for a final Brooks work, The Passion – the triptych “Reflects the kind of suffering that goes on every day, not the biblical kind,” the composer emphasized. Lavishly kinetic pageantry with wry Black Sabbath allusions shifted to dissociative, Laurie Anderson-ish atmospherics, Bagg narrating sobering advice from the composer’s terminally ill sister to her children. The leaping, trebly counterpoint of the final segment brought to mind My Brightest Diamond.

Sō Percussion took the stage for Nicole Lizée’s increasingly dissociative, gamelanesque electroacoustic instrumental White Label Experiment, echoed with considerably louder hi-tech energy later on by neosoul singer/keyboardist/dancer Xenia Rubinos and drummer Marco Buccelli.

Veteran new-music string quartet Ethel’s percussively insistent, clenched-teeth performance of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Balkan-infected Logbook, Part II took the intensity to redline in seconds flat: it was the highlight of the night. Fueled by cellist Dorothy Lawson’s darkly bluesy glissandos, their take of Jessie Montgomery’s rousing dance theme Voodoo Dolls was a close second. They wound up their trio of pieces, joining voices,instruments and eventually their feet throughout the bracing, allusively Appalachian close harmonies of Wolfe’s enveloping, driving Blue Dress for String Quartet.

The Bang on a Can All-Stars took back the stage alongside narrator Eric Berryman in a cinematic, suspensefully rocking arrangement of Frederic Rzewski’s Attica-themed Coming Together, cellist Ashley Bathgate and bassist Robert Black’s heroically furtive pedalpoint anchoring the story’s grim foreshadowing.

Cellist Maya Beiser and narrator Kate Valk teamed up for Lang’s pensively minimalist, gently amusing loopmusic piece The Day, its lyrics mostly a litany of tongue-in-cheek mundanities sourced off the web via a search on “I remember the day.” He explained that he’d deleted the product references and lewdness – a lot, he admitted. 

The night’s coda was Riley’s Autodreamographical Tales & Science Fiction, the composer joining the All-Stars on vocals. Chow’s bluesy Rhodes piano made a smooth segue out of the Lang work in tandem with Riley’s wry beat-poetry reminiscence. Levine’s Pink Floyd echoes added bulk and bombast; Bathgate’s powerhouse soul vocals were an unexpected treat. As was Riley’s turn solo at the piano, part Satie, part Tom Waits.

What’s the takeaway from all this? This year was less a sounding of what’s happening on a global level, as past years’ and decades’ marathons have been, than a simple celebration of the Bang on a Can inner circle, with a few tentative ventures outside. But that’s ok. They earned that a long time ago.